Retaining female employees is a one-woman job at law firm

By
Courtesy of the Associated Press

June 10, 2014

Unlike most attorneys at big law firms, Debby Ackerman of Dallas-based Strasburger & Price LLP doesn’t have to worry about billable hours or bringing in clients.

The 64-year-old is being paid to be a role model.

Her sole charge is to show Strasburger’s female rising stars how to have successful legal careers without sacrificing rewards on the home front.

Women at professional firms are often urged to guide by example. But that means giving up time they could be spending on advancing their own careers.

Strasburger partner Mark Golman believes he has found the solution.

Ackerman is a former general counsel at Southwest Airlines. Golman lured her out of retirement nearly three years ago to help work with a startup Mexican airline. When that project fizzled out, he wanted to find her another role.

“Our younger female lawyers naturally gravitated to Debby because she’s been-there-done-that at a major U.S. company in an industry that’s traditionally male-dominated,” Golman said. “Debby had already climbed the ladder, so that pressure was not on her.”

Strasburger has a half-dozen career development programs, but this is the first time it has hired an in-house mentor.

During her six-year tenure as Southwest’s top in-house attorney, Ackerman helped the airline right itself after 9/11, worked on labor negotiations and developed the airline’s code of ethics.

“I can’t think of a better person to be a mentor, both from a legal standpoint and as a person,” said Jim Parker, former CEO of the Dallas-based carrier. “Southwest would not have been as great an airline as it became if Debby hadn’t been around.”

She took on the mentoring job at Strasburger two years ago. She’s paid what she calls a “very generous, approaching-six-figure” annual salary for eight hours a week of mentoring and a bonus for any specialty legal work she does.

Strasburger has no trouble recruiting talented women out of law school and has promoted a number of them into leadership roles, Ackerman said. But women tend to “dribble out.”

“We’re trying to figure out how to attack that attrition rate and make this firm work for them in a legal world where you eat what you kill, basically,” she said.

Ackerman has a dozen women attorneys under her tutelage — nine at the firm and three at client companies that aren’t being charged for her services.

“These are not women who needed remedial hand-holding. They’re superstars,” said Ackerman, sitting in a conference room of Strasburger’s offices on the 44th floor of the Bank of America Tower. “I asked Mark, ‘Two years from now, what does success look like to you?’ He said, ‘They’re all still here.’ ”

Her batting average is good, but not 1.000. “We lost one at the firm to her third baby,” Ackerman said.

She teaches the art of schmoozing. “We have a lot of networking events. I go to them with my mentees,” she said. “Lawyers are sometimes reserved. I can talk to anyone about anything. I worked for Herb Kelleher for 20 years.”

Ackerman didn’t start out as a career woman.

Her father never considered bringing her into the family Ford dealership in Las Vegas. “I was supposed to get married, make babies and join the Junior League,” Ackerman said.

She married her first husband right out of college and put him through Southern Methodist University law school by working as a legal secretary. “I looked at him and the lawyers I worked for and thought, ‘I’m at least as smart as them, and they make a lot more money than I do.’ So I decided to go to law school.”

In 1978, while finishing her law degree at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Ackerman clerked for Oppenheimer, Rosenberg, Kelleher & Wheatley — and yes, the Kelleher was Herb.

Kelleher left to become Southwest CEO in 1981 and hired Parker, who hired Ackerman in 1988 to help him build the legal department. Parker promoted her to general counsel when he was named CEO in 2001.

Why?

“For starters, her sheer brilliance as a lawyer is unquestioned,” said Parker, who is mostly retired now. “She always had the passion to take on challenges.”

Ackerman became general counsel just three months before 9/11. The aftermath was both horrendous and electrifying.

“Alan Mulally, who at the time was head of Boeing Commercial Aircraft and is now retiring as CEO of Ford (Motor Co.), was in China on 9/11,” she recalled. “He hot-footed it back to the U.S. of A. as fast as he could once the planes were back in the air. His first stop was Dallas, Texas, to talk to Herb Kelleher about, ‘What’s going to happen to my industry?’ ”

Kelleher was wondering what he was going to do with all the 737s Southwest had ordered.

She sat in on that conversation and said she was thinking: “‘Holy cow! This is a life-altering, industry-changing, history-making moment.’ We came up with this plan to defer aircraft deliveries by parking new planes in the desert using a very creative third-party trust arrangement.”

Ackerman was negotiating a contract extension for mechanics on Sept. 11. “The whole (negotiation) team was stuck in my office for four or five days because there were no planes flying,” she said. “It was a serious bonding experience.”

She says one of her prized possessions is a Teamsters pin they gave her a few weeks later at the contract-signing celebration.

She tries to impart this message to her mentees: “It’s not just thinking about the bottom line. It’s thinking about the human being on the other side of the table.”

Ackerman’s proudest accomplishment is raising two daughters who have successful careers. Her oldest, also an attorney, has 20-month-old twins.

But Ackerman’s life story is not a fairy tale. She’s on her third marriage. Her first lasted 13 years, her second 16.

“I tell my charges, ‘You have three big things in your life: your job, your husband and your children — not necessarily in that order.’ In my experience, the husband got short-shrifted more than the other two. I don’t advocate that.”

Alison Cross, a 37-year-old attorney, comes into the conference room. Cross, who has been with Strasburger for six years, is married with two daughters, 3 and 19 months, and a third baby on the way.

“Sometimes when you get caught up in a particular matter that’s difficult and you’re stuck in the details, it’s hard to see the bigger picture,” said Cross, who’s been working with Ackerman for two years.

“It’s important to hear from somebody who’s successful and respected within the firm say to us: ‘Do your job at work, but remember to keep your priorities straight. Your kids and your husband aren’t going away. You can do a good job here and still do a good job at home. They’re not mutually exclusive.’ ”

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